Analyzing the Rudy Gobert Trade

Free Agency opened on June 30th, and the Timberwolves – led by new GM Tim Connolly – have certainly made their mark. In a blockbuster trade, Minnesota sent to 5 players (Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leandro Bolmaro, and Walker Kessler) along with 4 1st round picks and a pick swap in exchange for Rudy Gobert.

What did Minnesota give up?

The Timberwolves put together one of the biggest packages for a player in NBA history. Let’s dive into it:

The Players
  1. Malik Beasley – Beasley played a total of 130 games with Minnesota, which consisted of great flashes marred by generally inconsistent play. He has the potential to light up the scoreboard (scoring 25+ points 15 times), and was the best 3-point shooter on the team for much of his tenure. You could also make the argument that his inconsistent play is due to extenuating circumstances such as returning from injury or his limited training camp with the team (off-court issues cost him almost the entirety of last offseason). He’s on a team-friendly deal – at a minimum it’s an expiring $15.5 million contract, but with a team option for $16.5 million the following year. Beasley is a good, valuable shooter with offensive upside, but doesn’t provide much past that.
  2. Patrick Beverley – This one hurts. After just 1 season, Pat Bev was already a fan favorite and felt like the heart and soul of the Timberwolves – especially on defense. His loss is a painful one as it really felt like he was a great fit in Minnesota. Still, Beverley is 34 years old on a 1-year deal ($13 million), and would probably be looking at a reduced role going forward. The loss of his impact to the culture of the franchise is bigger than the loss of his impact on the court. People who clowned him for celebrating the play-in win don’t understand what that kind of emotion and love does for a franchise with as much suffering as the Timberwolves. I wish him nothing but the best; I ❤️ Pat Bev.
  3. Jarred Vanderbilt – Vando was a bright surprise last season for Minnesota, playing very solid starter minutes for most of the year. He has an unlimited motor, and brings the energy every night. He’s an undersized big who can’t shoot, so I’m not sure he can be much more than a high-end backup on a team with championship aspirations, but he’s on a bargain contract (2 years/$8.9M) which is a valuable asset.
  4. Leandro Bolmaro – The 23rd overall pick in the 2020 draft, Bolmaro was pretty much all potential at this point. A 21 year-old rookie out of Argentina, most of Bolmaro’s experience was in the G League and, prior to the draft, in the Euroleague. He’s got prototypical size and decent athleticism for the position, but is years away from contributing in a meaningful way, if he ever does. Apologies to the Wolves fans who are true believers, but he’s basically a toss-in at this point.
  5. Walker Kessler – This was essentially an extra 1st round pick, as he was literally picked 22nd overall 10 days ago. The best shot-blocker in college basketball last season, Kessler is an intriguing prospect, but with the addition of Gobert, he wouldn’t have much of a role on this team.
The Picks

My initial reaction to 4 1st round picks and a swap was a more colorful version of “what the hell is Tim Connolly doing?” 3 of the picks (2023, 2025, and 2027) are unprotected, meaning they go to Utah regardless of which pick they end up as, even if the Timberwolves stink and get a top pick. The 4th pick (2029) is top-5 protected, meaning Minnesota keeps the pick only if it lands in on of the first 5 picks. There is also a 2026 pick swap, meaning Utah can trade their 2026 1st round pick for Minnesota’s if it’s better. Now, the optimist would note that the Wolves should be good for the rest of Gobert’s contract (at a minimum), so the pick swap is worthless, and at least 2 of the picks will not be very valuable. The pessimist would say that the Wolves aren’t guaranteed to be good for 4 years, let alone 7 years, so at least a couple of these picks are likely to be pretty damn valuable. So that begs the question – how good will they be?

How good will the Timberwolves be with Gobert?

How good is Rudy Gobert?

In short, he’s *really* fucking good. Gobert is the best rim protector in the league, and is arguably the best defender in the league, winning Defensive Player of the Year 3 of the last 5 seasons, and finishing no lower than 7th for the award over the past 8 seasons. He’s one of the greatest defenders of all time, and he hasn’t shown any signs of decline as he enters his 10th season.

There’s also been a narrative over the past few seasons that he’s been “played out of the game” in the playoffs. The Jazz have had defensive playoff struggles, but to criticize Gobert is to miss the context of why he’s so valuable to begin with. The Jazz played exactly 1 wing who wasn’t a defensive liability (Royce O’Neale) and the rest – especially Donovan Mitchell – were basically turnstiles, offering little to no resistance to ball handlers, mostly due to effort. Gobert makes up for that with insane lateral movement and elite rim protection. While he’s on the court, opponents have a 108 offensive rating, when he sits, they have a 115 offensive rating. For context, 108 would be good enough for 4th best defense in the league, while 115 would be 28th. When teams go small against Utah, it was effective not because Gobert can’t guard his man, but because it moves him further away from the basket. When he helps off his man on the perimeter, the back-side rotations were rarely on time, and it resulted in easy buckets for opponents. This video does a good job of illustrating the defensive breakdown of the Jazz against the Mavs this year (shoutout Jalen Brunson and Villanova fans), and – spoiler alert – the breakdown was not Rudy Gobert.

We know what a dominant force he is on the defensive end, but he’s far from a one trick pony. Gobert’s defense is so good that it tends to overshadow his offensive impact. He can’t space the floor, but he’s usually involved as the screener, and he uses his body well to keep defenders from hedging away. He also finishes at an insane clip, as evidenced by leading the league in shooting % (as well as effective fg% and true shooting %, which factor in 3-point shooting and free throw shooting). He has been one of the most efficient pick-and-roll big men in the league; Gobert is more than just passable on offense – he’s very good!

Roster Implications

On the surface, Minnesota gave up far more value than you would expect for what they got in return, but at least they kept their 4 best players – Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, and Jaden McDaniels. Still, the Timberwolves traded two starters and a role player (all top 7 in minutes) in addition to the picks – why was Tim Connolly willing to do this? As you dig into the concurrent roster moves, it becomes a bit more clear the rationale for why the they gave up the players they did.

Prior to the trade, Minnesota had the maximum 17 players signed to contracts (Nathan Knight and rookie Josh Minott signed to 2-way deals). NBA rotations rarely go past 12, and in the playoffs it usually drops to 8 or 9. Coach Chris Finch had already made remarks regarding a number of players about how he thought they were deserving of minutes and he was looking to include them in the rotation. Specifically, Jaylen Nowell had shown the ability to play a bigger role, and having him available to replace Malik Beasley’s minutes makes Beasley more expendable. Additionally, the trade allowed Minnesota to sign Bryn Forbes to a 1-year minimum contract (Forbes has shot 41.6% from deep over the past 5 seasons). Forbes and Nowell play a similar role to Beasley (arguably better!) for a fraction of the cost.

Similarly, after signing Kyle Anderson and trading for Rudy Gobert, even if Minnesota could have retained Jarred Vanderbilt or Walker Kessler, they’d likely play limited minutes or even be out of the rotation. Leandro Bolmaro was unlikely to get meaningful time either way. Therefore, while the Timberwolves still lost them as assets, the players themselves weren’t likely to make a difference in the rotation going forward.

How does Rudy fit in the current roster?

Ever since the “smallball” Warriors won the title in 2015, the NBA landscape has drastically changed to devalue centers who can’t shoot. While this shift isn’t surprising, many decision makers missed why the Warriors have been successful, and this explains why many teams failed trying to replicate going small. I put “smallball” in quotes because that name misrepresents what the benefit of the Warriors lineup was – it’s not that smaller is better, or that multiple big men can’t play together, but rather their “smallball” lineup (with Draymond at center) could match up defensively with opponents who couldn’t match up with them. Sound simple? It kinda is. Not only was Golden State long at every position (except Steph Curry), but Draymond Green (due to his length, strength, and insane basketball IQ) could guard centers of any size, while exploiting a mismatch (usually through dribble handoffs getting Curry his defender of choice) offensively. That doesn’t work with most “smallball” lineups because the de facto center can’t guard prototypically-sized centers and/or can’t exploit them offensively.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert

For those wondering if Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert can fit together, consider what type of lineup could both exploit them defensively (Towns guarding a 4) and also defend them. Defensively, the biggest area Towns has struggled in has been as the rim protector (notably racking up early fouls) in drop coverage. He made some strides this season as they shifted to a defense that switched more often, but he’s still playing out of his best position. He’s mobile enough to be an oversized PF rather than a center, where he has actually been successful guarding the perimeter. I don’t see anyone exploiting him defensively due to his size, especially with Gobert behind him. When Towns has played alongside another center (albeit not often over the past few seasons), he’s been at his best defensively, and the centers he played with the most aren’t exactly stalwarts in Gorgui Dieng and 39 year-old Kevin Garnett. Putting Towns next to Gobert won’t solve *all* of his problems, but it’s pretty much the best defensive situation he could be put in.

Offensively, the fit may not be perfect, but I’m not sure any lineup can contain this Minnesota roster. Ideally, you’d surround Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns with as many shooters as possible to limit double-teams and allow them space to run the offense. Rudy Gobert is obviously not a shooter. Still, they played largely alongside Jarred Vanderbilt last season, who provides nothing in the way of floor spacing, and the Timberwolves were still tied for the 6th best offense in the league – the spacing will be fine. Gobert also provides an additional element to the Minnesota offense – a lob threat. He converted 95 alley-oops last season. The 2 leading alley-oop finishers on the Timberwolves last year (Towns and Naz Reid) converted on 5… combined. D’Angelo Russell was an all-star in Brooklyn when paired next to Jarrett Allen, and thrives attacking the basket with a big roll man. He and Towns were effective in the pick and pop, but Towns preferred to use his size to shoot over defenders rather than roll in traffic. Gobert is the exact opposite, and the type of player Russell thrives playing alongside. I expect this offense to be near the best in the league next season.

What is next?

Cap Space – Will the new owners pay the tax?

I’ve mentioned contracts a few times so far, and that’s where this trade gets tricky. Gobert has a massive contract – $170 million over 4 years. That means the current team as constructed won’t stay together for more than 1 season without ownership agreeing to eat an extremely large salary cap tax bill in the near future. As discussed above, Russell is (hopefully) primed for a breakout season. But even at his market value today, when his contract ends at the end of the season, he’s going to demand at least $20 million per year, and probably closer to $25 million. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels will be getting rookie contract extensions that kick in 2 years from now. Edwards will get the rookie max (5 years/$195.5 million) and McDaniels will conservatively demand at least $25 million per year. I’ve added the projected salaries into the team’s current payroll below (projected figures in italics):

Timberwolves Payroll 2022-23 through 2025-26

Teams pay additional money depending on the amount over the tax line they go. This money is split between the teams who remain under the tax. Here’s a quick overview if you want additional details. As you can see above, starting in 2024-25, the salaries of just 6 players on the roster would push the Timberwolves well into the tax. Assuming even minor deals to keep the rest of the roster intact, this would cost the owners – conservatively – $100 million. Golden State paid more than $184 million in tax this year on top of their team payroll of $177 million.

Until recently, Minnesota has been famously reluctant to spend additional money above the tax. The new ownership group, led by Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore, have assured fans that is no longer the case, and that winning is the top priority. Easier said than done. Don’t get me wrong, I think that they’ll be willing to pay, but the difference between being $10 million over the tax and $40 million over is a difference in total cost of close to $200 million. When that bill comes due, will they pay up?

What’s the Verdict?

Chips on the Table

Given their financial situation, the Wolves are firmly in win-now mode. As with every big trade, it is a risk. If the Timberwolves win a title, there will obviously be no doubt that this was a good move, and almost no doubt that the owners will pay to keep the group together. On the other hand, if Gobert’s skills decline, the team doesn’t gel, or injuries rear their ugly heads and the Wolves struggle, it will be more difficult to justify keeping the team together, especially paying a ludicrous tax bill. And if the Wolves miss the playoffs, the picks traded away fall in the lottery, which would be a disaster. Likely, the result is somewhere in between. I’d say a Conference Finals berth is a realistic metric to whether this is considered a success.

Overall, I think it was an overpay to get a player who Utah needed to trade at some point anyway. Sending unprotected picks so far into the future could be a huge mistake, and I think there were less risky moves available such as trading for Dejounte Murray (who is 5 years younger and was traded for far less than Gobert), trying to build with the current roster for a year or two more before pushing all-in, or waiting for the trade deadline to get a cheaper deal. Still, Minnesota got the player they wanted without giving up the core of their roster, and the Timberwolves should be a true contender for the first time in decades. It’s only an overpay if it doesn’t work.

Can’t wait to see the team in action. Wolves in 4.

3 comments

  1. Great write up! Was looking forward to your thoughts. One thing I thought that could be key for Gobert on offense can be the fact Mitchell, Utah’s #1 offensive option, almost NEVER (2.7 passes to Gobert a game this past season) passed let alone provided assists to Gobert. If any (or multiple) players like Ant, KAT, Russell can develop a rapport with Gobert the offensive ‘struggles’ in Utah could very easily be a thing of the past.

    As a hornets fan totally agree a conference finals berth would be a success – pulling for another small market team to push through!

    Like

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